A calm voice in a trying age

Poet's Corner

May 19, 2002|By Michael Collier | By Michael Collier,Special to the Sun

For more than three decades, Carl Dennis has been writing quiet, intelligent and accessible poems about what it means to live in our faith-challenged age. Dennis has taught for many years at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and also teaches in the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. Last month, he received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his eighth book, Practical Gods.

The voice of a Carl Dennis poem is calm, congenial, self-aware but not self-obsessed. In "After Eden," the poet gives us a good measure of his attentive capacities as he ponders the difference between paradise and the here and now:

"When my neighbor in Eden needed to muse / Alone for a week in a hut by the ocean / She could rely, without having to ask, on me / To water her garden, me and my natural kindness.

"But here before she can wave good-bye / She needs to hear me say, "I promise," / I promise to resist my natural inclination / To put things off, or away, or lose them."

Often, Dennis finds fresh ways to retell the myths and stories that have defined Western culture for centuries; by doing so, he asks us to consider our relationship to the past. As in the poem "Basho," where a preoccupation with family traits allows him to playfully speculate that his "need before supper to stroll to the reservoir" might be a sign of the "nomadic origins" inherited from his father. In this way, Dennis believes that establishing a relationship with the past allows us "To be a vehicle for the dead to speak through," a vehicle, Dennis wagers, that is "Surely an improvement over being a showman / Who shifts his costume to please a moody audience."

The moody audience works itself subtly into the thematic texture of "On the Bus to Utica," a dramatic monologue about alien abduction that is told to a stranger. Dennis uses the alien abduction as a charming conceit to describe a conversion experience, in this case from skepticism about "creatures more advanced than we are / visiting now and then from elsewhere in the universe" to a belief in them.

Belief in aliens aside, what the speaker of the poem has learned -- what has "altered" in his life -- is to be "brave" and "open" with others, "to confide" his secrets. In other words, faith and belief of any kind, though it is apt to sound crazy and eccentric and to keep company with the paranoid, is what enriches our lives and surprises us with the unfathomable mystery of existence.

Maryland poet laureate Michael Collier's Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.

On the Bus to Utica

By Carl Dennis

Up to a year ago I'd have driven myself to Utica

As I've always done when visiting Aunt Jeannine.

But since last summer, and the bad experience in my car

With aliens, I prefer bus travel. Do you believe

In creatures more advanced than we are

Visiting now and then from elsewhere in the universe?

Neither did I till experience taught me otherwise.

Common to people like me who have faith in science

It happened one night last fall after the Rotary meeting.

I'd lingered, as chapter chairman, to sort my notes,

So I wasn't surprised when I finally got to the lot

To find my car the only one there, though the shadows

Hovering over it should have been a tip-off

And the strong odor I had trouble placing --

Salty, ashy, metallic. My thoughts were elsewhere,

Reliving the vote at the meeting to help a restaurant

Take its first steps in a risky neighborhood.

So the element of surprise was theirs, the four of them,

Three who pulled me in when I opened the door

And one who drove us out past the town edge

To a cleared field where a three-legged landing craft

Big as a moving van sat idling. In its blue-green light

I caught my first good look at their faces. Like ours,

But with eyes bigger and glossier, and foreheads bumpier

With bristles from the eyebrows up, the hair of hedgehogs.

No rudeness from them, no shouting or shoving.

Just quiet gestures signaling me to sit down

And keep calm as we rose in silence to the mother ship.

I remember the red lights of the docking platform,

A dark hall, a room with a gurney where it dawned on me

Just before I went under there would be no discussions,

No sharing of thoughts on the fate of the universe,

No messages to bring back to my fellow earthlings.

When I woke from the drug they'd dosed me with

I was back in the car, in the Rotary parking lot,

With a splitting headache and a feeling I'd been massaged

Hard for a week or two by giants. Now I feel fine

Though my outlook on life has altered. It rankles

To think that beings have reached us who are smugly certain

All they can learn from us is what we can learn

From dissecting sea worms or banding geese.

Let's hope their science is pure at least,

Not a probe for a colony in the Milky Way.

Do you think they've planted a bug inside me?

Is that why you're silent? Fear will do us more harm

Than they will. Be brave. Be open.

Tell me something you won't confide to your friends

Out of fear they may think you strange, eccentric.

If you're waiting for an audience that's more congenial,

More sensitive than the one that happens

To be sitting beside you now on this ramshackle bus,

I can sympathize. Once I waited too.

Now you can see I take what's offered.

Excerpted from Practical Gods, (Penguin Books, 2001). Copyright c 2001 by Carl Dennis. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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